Politics & Policy

The Distant Conservative Heritage of the National Park Service

A Park Service ranger talks with visitors at Yellowstone National Park (Photo: Neal Herbert/NPS)
Protect our natural wonders, but don't let the feds control too much other state land.

When Ferdinand V. Hayden returned from his exploration of the area that is now Yellowstone National Park, he warned President Ulysses S. Grant that “vandals who are . . . waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil . . . these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.” His words led to the beginning of the National Park system, and to the creation, 101 years ago today, of the National Park Service (NPS).

Today, Americans enjoy access to 59 National Parks. We can be grateful that the number has been kept small, with the title of “National Park” reserved for those sites that are almost literally breathtaking. They inspire in their visitors a sense of otherworldliness, humility, and spiritual majesty (the Mormons who explored what is now Zion National Park immortalized their feeling of God’s presence in spiritually inspired names for the park’s monuments, including Angels Landing and the Great White Throne).

But the Parks make up just 11 percent of the total lands protected by the federal government. While both conservatives and liberals appreciate the National Parks, the far vaster system of federally protected land worries conservatives. The issue is a complicated one for us, especially when one considers that the importance of stewardship is what inspired the NPS and the federal protection of land in the first place. We take seriously our God-given responsibility to protect and care for the Earth. Despite Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive roots, his legacy as a pro-conservationist president can trace its origins to this notion.

And it continues to inspire today; it’s why Russell Kirk found something to like about Wendell Berry, a noted conservationist and self-identified Democrat. In a 2012 article for National Review, John J. Miller explored Berry’s conservative conservationism, observing that Berry possesses a “suspicion of progress, support for local autonomy, and a preference for the old ways of doing things.”

Berry’s self-sufficient homestead in Kentucky represents part of the conservative approach to stewardship. Another part is the recognition that, sometimes, government has a responsibility to be stewards for us. If all men were angels, after all, no government would be necessary.

But it gets complicated when we look at the current state of federal land protection. (Even the left-wing Berry is uncomfortable with government overregulation.) Like most well-intentioned government ideas, federal land protection has grown out of control, and forgotten its conservative roots.

For one thing, America has a federal system, and the use of state lands should be left up to the states. Frustrated with the federal government’s overreach, Congress placed two limitations on the Antiquities Act — the law allowing the president to set aside state-owned land as a National Monument. In 1943, after Franklin Roosevelt declared Jackson Hole National Monument federally protected, Wyoming congressmen persuaded their colleagues to limit the act to require congressional ratification for future enlargement or creation of national monuments in Wyoming. In 1978, after Jimmy Carter declared 56 million acres of Alaska federally protected, Congress expanded the Wyoming rule to include Alaska, with the ratification requirement covering areas of 5,000 acres and above.

Nevada is perhaps the most striking example of federal over-protection of lands. While 48.4 and 61.3 percent of Wyoming’s and Alaska’s land, respectively, is owned by the federal government, the people of Nevada control less than 25 percent of their own land, according to data from a March report by the Congressional Research Service. The state with lowest percentage of federally owned lands is Washington, at 28.6. The highest percent in the Plains states, whose people use their land for farming and raising livestock, is South Dakota, at 5.4 percent. In all states east of the Mississippi River, the government owns only 4 percent of the land.

Federal land ownership decreased by 3.9 percent between 1990 and 2015. The Bureau of Land Management, which regulates activities such as grazing and mining on public land, saw the highest acreage loss, at 23.6 million acres. But over the same period, the land holdings of the NPS, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service increased by about 7.4 million acres. In fact, much of the BLM’s land loss over that 25-year period represents a transfer of land to other federal  departments. The 1994 California Desert Protection Act alone reassigned 2.9 million acres of BLM land to the NPS.

So even as overall federal land ownership got smaller, the land protected by the NPS has increased. And, despite what those in favor of federal land ownership will tell you, it is relatively easy for the government to set aside protected land. Consider for a moment the current list of categories into which annexed land falls:

‐ National Parks

‐ National Preserves

‐ National Seashores

‐ National Lakeshores

‐ National Forests

‐ National Grasslands

‐ National Monuments

‐ National Battlefields

‐ National Memorials

‐ National Historic Sites

‐ National Parkways

‐ National Cemeteries

‐ National Conservation Areas

‐ Wilderness Areas

‐ Wilderness Study Areas

‐ National Wild and Scenic Rivers

‐ National Scenic Trails

‐ National Historic Trails

‐ Outstanding National Areas

‐ National Marine Sanctuaries

‐ National Recreation Areas

‐ National Estuarine Research Reserves

‐ National Wildlife Refuges

We must continue fighting government over-protection of state lands.

Without some clear definition of what genuinely requires protection, it’s easy for the federal government to declare land “protected” under one of this long list of categories when such a need for protection doesn’t exist, when the land is just, well, land. While much of the protected government land could be used for public economic benefit, conservatives do recognize that, because of the “tragedy of the commons,” there would be bad consequences if such a reform were implemented improperly or all at once.

On the 101st anniversary of the NPS, we must toast a noble division of the federal government, but continue fighting government over-protection of state lands. We need to save a program conservative in its conception but toxically liberal in its present form. The government itself has become the avaricious vandals the NPS was created to resist, and our conservative heritage, our federalist history, and our representative democracy are on the line.

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